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Does The Fate of the Navajo Nation Depend on Its Language?

AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca

On Thursday, a Navajo court in Window Rock, Arizona removed tribal presidential candidate Chris Deschene from the ballot for refusing to prove his fluency in the Navajo language, as is required by Navajo law. The decision highlights a growing dispute over the future of the country’s largest Native American community, the role of language in establishing its identity, and what it means to be Navajo in modern society. According to the 2010 census, around 169,000 people say they speak Navajo; yet fewer and fewer of those under 50, like 43-year-old Deschene, are fluent, stoking fears that the language—and the Navajo identity—could die out. In an interview with The New Republic, Dr. Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie, a 61-year-old Navajo professor emeritus of Navajo (the language) at Northern Arizona University, discusses the generational divide, how to define fluency, and the future of the Navajo Nation. 

Elaine Teng: Can you explain to our readers what’s at stake in this dispute over Chris Deschene’s eligibility for the presidency?

Evangeline Parsons-Yazzie: I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, the Navajo language has been declared an endangered language, which means that the children are no longer speaking the language. I think Chris Deschene represents many of those young people who speak very little but understand quite a bit, not that he necessarily is one of them. The people who brought this dispute against him have shut out all other young Navajos who would have liked to have him represent their people. [These young people] are very good orators in English and would have represented their people very, very well on a state, national, and international level. At this point, that’s what’s needed.

On the other hand, I can understand why the people who created the dispute are saying what they are, because our language does represent sovereignty. Sovereignty is something we inherited and we’re supposed to maintain. It’s a gift to us, and that’s how the elders who are fluent speakers see it. Therefore, they want their youth to be able to come back before them and speak in their language. It’s the elders who make up the voting public, and they feel that the president of the Navajo Nation should be able to explain to them in Navajo the issues that are facing them. 

ET: So this seems to be a generational question. If young people feel shut out from the process, do you think this will create change?

EPY: I think the people who brought about this dispute are not considering their own children and grandchildren. If this becomes part of the Navajo code, which is the set of laws that govern the Navajo people and is part of our sovereignty, then they’re doing a disservice to their children. 

Maybe this will challenge the young voters to vote for Chris Deschene as a write-in option. I just hope the young people do challenge this and try to voice their wishes, too, and say, “Hey, we want to be represented too. We don’t speak the language.”

There are different degrees of fluency. The language tests that are provided across the reservation vary1; some include religious and philosophical aspects, which are very, very difficult and at a high level of speech. Whereas what a candidate needs is conversational Navajo. If they move around in political circles, they can acquire that language.

The Navajo people are not allowing for that acquisition to take place, or to trust that acquisition will take place, and therefore they’re distrusting the younger generation as well.

ET: Chris Deschene has conversational fluency then, but not an in-depth political vocabulary?

EPY: I haven’t heard him speak. I met him once, but because there were non-Navajos in the room, he spoke in English. He greeted me in Navajo, and his greeting was nice. I didn’t detect any sign of an accent. A lot of people, when they’re just beginning to pick up the language, they have an accent in their Navajo. I didn’t detect that at all. Had I known he was going to be challenged in this way, I would have chatted with him. He’s a very respectful young man. He has a really wonderful command of the English language, which is what we also need. We need new ideas, new blood coming into the Navajo Nation.

ET: He seems very qualified, having been in the Marines and the Arizona State House of Representatives. Other than the language requirement, he seems like a very good candidate.

EPY: I believe he is, and I hope that the Navajo youth and the non-fluent Navajos challenge this and say that we want him as a write-in candidate, and show the people: We want to be represented, too. We’re Navajos as well.

I think a lot of young people who are willing to take a political stance for their people are really confused right now because we didn’t count on two very important issues.2 They [the Navajo Nation Council] didn’t listen to our wishes, and now they’re pushing us out even more, so our voices don’t mean anything. We need somebody who can interface at the state and national level, and you don’t need Navajo fluency for that. These people who created the dispute are not looking down the road. They’re looking right before their noses, and that’s it. And it’s just so, so sad.

ET: How is the language taught today? Is it taught in schools or mostly at home?

EPY: It’s still being spoken at home quite a bit. If you travel across the reservation, you can hear parents speaking to their children, elders speaking to children, and you hear children speaking past as well. It’s taught in the schools quite extensively across the reservation.

The youth themselves are creating a new dialect, which is pleasing. A dying language is one that stays completely the same. A language that is still alive is constantly changing, so that’s encouraging.

ET: How many Navajo people live on or off the reservation?

EPY: More people are moving off the reservation for economic reasons. They’ve applied for jobs and they’ve been told, “Sorry, you don’t speak Navajo. You’re highly qualified, but we’re going to hire this less qualified person [because they speak Navajo], so sorry.” I’ve taught twenty-four years. The youth want to come back, but they go back to the university to work on a master’s degree because they were not wanted on their own reservation because they couldn’t speak. We’re really doing a disservice to ourselves, to our wholeness as a people, and to our own economic system. We chase the youth away just for the sake of understanding. I feel for Mr. Deschene, but on the other hand I feel for the elders who have that expectation that he needs to communicate with us. Because they are the majority of the voters.

The median age was 21 in the 2000 Census, I believe.3 We are an extremely young nation. The people who brought about this dispute are discriminating against the majority of the population, and that’s scary. The language needs to be protected, but it shouldn’t be used to discriminate against people. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

  1. Dr. Parsons-Yazzie helped design one of the language tests used on the reservation.

  2. The two issues were changing the nation's name from Navajo to Dine, and bringing casinos to the reservation.

  3. In fact, in the 2010 Census, the median age was 28.